China Gets Failing Grade on North Korea

Beijing’s approach on Pyongyang is at odds with its ambition for greater global leadership

A Chinese man stretching near the Friendship bridge on the Yalu River connecting North Korea and China. Beijing appears to believe a nuclear North Korea is preferable to Pyongyang’s collapse.

A Chinese man stretching near the Friendship bridge on the Yalu River connecting North Korea and China. Beijing appears to believe a nuclear North Korea is preferable to Pyongyang’s collapse. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

SHANGHAI—Not for the first time, the specter of nuclear proliferation hangs over North Asia.

In the 1970s, South Korea was secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Taiwan was running a similar clandestine operation. Japan sat on a stockpile of plutonium from its civilian nuclear program and then, as now, had all the technology it needed to build a bomb.

Only strong U.S. pressure, combined with strategic reassurance to its allies, managed to head off an arms race. In Taiwan’s case, the U.S. confronted it with CIA evidence of its program and shut it down in the 1980s.

Today, a nuclear-arms race is one of the nightmare scenarios as China’s ally Pyongyang terrorizes its neighbors.

This time, it’s on Beijing to restore a measure of calm.

China faces a moment of truth in its own backyard on whether it is ready to assume greater global leadership.

The Threat From North Korea’s Missiles

Pyongyang has accelerated its tests of missiles and nuclear bombs as it tries to develop a nuclear-armed missile that could hit the U.S. mainland

So far, writes John H. Maurer, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, “Beijing is flunking the test.”

In Beijing’s view, the current crisis was largely created by U.S. belligerence, and thus the onus is primarily on Washington to fix it, with China acting as facilitator.

President Donald Trump has tweeted that while he appreciates the attempt by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to help “it has not worked out.” China insists it has made “relentless efforts” to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula.

An irritated China on Tuesday hit back at U.S. pressure to do more. “The ‘China responsibility theory’ on the peninsula nuclear issue can stop,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Yet China is Pyongyang’s enabler: Up to 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade runs through its neighbor. And commerce is surging; Pyongyang is a bustling capital.

Beijing appears to believe that living with a nuclear North Korea is preferable to the alternatives: the collapse of its socialist ally spilling refugees into its industrial heartland and bringing U.S. troops to its border.

This is likely a terrible miscalculation. It may well be true that North Korea’s youthful dictator, Kim Jong Un, isn’t driven by a death wish, but it would be unwise to count on restraint from a leader who reportedly had his own uncle blown to bits with an antiaircraft gun. He already has the capability to wipe out Seoul or Tokyo, and a missile that can reach Alaska.

A nuclear arms race might itself be a trigger for war. How would Beijing respond if Taiwan reactivated its nuclear program?

Right-wing politicians in Seoul are openly debating the nuclear option. Public opposition in Japan, the only country in the world to have suffered a nuclear attack, makes it unlikely that Tokyo would ever build its own arsenal.

But then, the unthinkable is now reality: President Trump talks about a “major, major conflict.”

Back in the 1970s, South Korea attempted a nuclear breakout when it feared U.S. abandonment. The spectacle of U.S. diplomats helicoptering out of Saigon in 1975 magnified the worries. Hundreds of scientists labored on the project. Seoul didn’t drop the effort until 1980—after the U.S. suspended a plan to pull out troops, according to Seung-Young Kim, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

A North Korea capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile would, once again, raise questions about U.S. willingness to come to the rescue. Would Washington risk Seattle for Seoul? That, in turn, might spur demands for a homegrown nuclear deterrent.

White House officials have signaled in recent days that the U.S. is ready to act unilaterallyby targeting Chinese banks and companies that Washington says are funneling cash to Pyongyang’s weapons program.

Hawks in the U.S. call for tougher action on North Korea, although the regime seems impervious to the effects of sanctions on its own impoverished people and military strikes would risk retaliation and millions of casualties, including among U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.

Others press for Washington to open direct dialogue with Pyongyang, though it’s uncertain whether the North would even come to the table.

One thing is clear, however: China’s passivity doesn’t jibe with its quest for international respect as a great power capable of solving big problems.

In the past, write Jake Sullivan and Victor Cha, two prominent North Korean experts, China left it to the U.S. to offer Pyongyang inducements, including energy aid, to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The bill during the Clinton and later Bush administrations came to half a billion dollars.

Now, they argue, “we should tell China that it has to pay to play. The basic trade would be Chinese disbursements to Pyongyang, as well as security assurances, in return for constraints on North Korea’s program.”

The world looks at North Asia as an almost invincible economic powerhouse. Even as the current crisis unfolds, the South Korean stock market booms. Samsung is poised to overtake Apple as the world’s most profitable technology company. Hobbling debt levels and obstacles to entry are far more worrying to foreign investors in China than the nuclear standoff.

Yet the region’s gains have always been fragile. It is now the most dangerous corner of the planet.

The question now is whether China will come to see that its rogue ally imperils everything—its past victories against poverty, its dreams of future wealth and power. And whether that will inspire it to lead.

Write to Andrew Browne at



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